It’s 40 degrees Celsius. That’s hot – very hot on this asphalt road, and my legs are getting tired from walking up the hill. Yet the heat is also thrilling after spending 25 years away embracing cool Atlantic winds on the other side of Canada. Actually, it’s kind of like getting a warm hug, and it feels good. It helps that I’m not in a particular hurry this morning, just a walk to explore the neighbourhood and get a lay of the land, so to speak. I had always imagined the Okangan as being a sort of desolate place, maybe even as desperate as the forsaken and imaginary towns portrayed in old Western movies, yet I can now feel this notion changing just as surely as I can see the patchwork of farmhouses, cottages, and cherry orchards below making way for upscale homes and landmark wineries. The old orchards are being cut away, their trees replaced by rows of wooden stakes for the regimented vineyards that are advancing over these hills.
I pause a moment to rest, and to look past these steady winds of change, toward the ancient bedrocks and distant headlands which tower beyond the deep and metallic blue waters of Okanagan Lake. It’s a huge lake, but the water is a pool compared to the vast and powerful blue of the cloudless desert sky, and the effect is a bit unnerving, as if the world was upside down with a placid ocean baking overhead. Yet the movement below cannot be ignored, and the feeling of change within myself continues to grow. The pioneer culture of the Naramata Bench is changing rapidly as dusty farm lanes and isolated apple orchards retreat. Those distant mountains now frame views cherished by increasing numbers of visitors and newfound residents, people who will soon replace the wild scrub, desert hills, and nurtured orchards with their own foundations and ideas, and I can see their steady flow across the land. They are building with marble and glass and crafted metal panels, they plant decorative grasses and rock gardens, and are changing this rustic culture as they pursue their own South Okanagan dreams. And one day, I suppose, they in turn will be replaced by another future dream.
Certainly, the apricots, cherries, and apples remain in some abundance. As I resume my walk I quickly encounter a few tended trees and am amazed to see ripe fruit hanging in abundance so close to me. For 25 years my only encounter with food has been in the fluorescent hall of a large supermarket or on the carefully boxed shelf of a corner store. It seems silly to realize, as if for the first time, that peaches grow on trees … in Canada …right here … where I’m walking. I’m the reason agri-tourism is a growing industry, because people living in larger cities can loose touch with the soil and their own roots, and can find the very sight of growing food to be a new and formative experience. Further up the hill is another site – where the land is being cleared for a new winery and vineyard. The contrast between the orchard and the shaved hill-side is remarkable, between the mature bounty and the hope for prosperity. I’ve been told that the decision to proceed this way is based upon economics and progress, and so I continue with my walk.
After a few moments the road levels out and begins a slow descent through a neighbourhood carefully planted with box-hedges, lavender mounds, and Russian Sage. Darting across my path, a family of California Grouse dash safely across the road and quickly disappear into the undergrowth below a large Pine tree. I’ve seen grouse all over the neighbourhood since I’ve arrived, mostly while driving, though this is the closest I’ve encountered them and the first time with such personal experience. With great care and reverence I edged toward the roadside, peering into the rockery and bush to see where they went. There are a few thorny cactus plants and some beautiful yellow flowers, but I cannot see the grouse anymore. California Grouse were introduced into the SOK nearly a hundred years ago and have successfully established themselves as a wild population of roadside dare-deveils and backyard broods. The locals don’t seem to pay them much attention, though as a visitor I find them quite novel and interesting. I was speechless when I discovered these endearing birds could actually fly, for their pedestrian habit is so common that I misjudged them as being some type of flightless desert road-runner. A mistaken assumption.
Off in the distance I could hear the brewing and peeping of more grouse, and resumed my walk past the wide yards to the stand of Pines which guarded the corner. The shade was welcome and made a difference as I paused to view the trees and the property. On either side stood a home, and in the centre of the lot a faded, hand-written “4-sale” sign was planted. It was a beautiful looking parcel, open in the middle and with a gorgeous stand of mature Pine trees which sheltered the flanks. Likely there were plenty of grouse, too. Given the location and the house construction in the area, it was surprising that the lot hadn’t sold before the sign faded. The telephone number had an area code from Alberta, which likely meant the owners had purchased the property as an investment in the years before the 2008 market collapse, when property in this area was rapidly escalating in price, and they were now holding on and hoping to recover their investment. A check of the local real estate listing reveals a large number of available lots, all apparently overpriced, all with Alberta contact numbers. People were building again, though local land prices hadn’t returned to their speculative highest-levels yet. And if the Alberta economy ever falters, that may be a very long time. Unlike the real estate boom in the Lower Mainland and Vancouver, the real estate market in the Okanagan is driven by people from Alberta – by oil money, as the locals say.
Money from Alberta also drives the local tourism industry. The number of vehicles in the area with Albertan license plates is noticeable, especially at the new wineries which are clustered along the Naramata Road. The wineries are far more than industrial concerns, often appearing as the brick and mortar manifestations of idyllic dreams by hardworking people. The are heavily branded, to be hip or eccentric, and to be very fashionable, and are increasingly presented as architectural landmarks. I must confess that I don’t drink wine, yet I find their combination of agrarian charms, architectural place-making, and market-branding alluring, especially when the Naramata facilities are viewed together as a collection that documents the development of the local industry over time. Hillside was the first grand winery built in the area, a large structure dominating the main road, which exclaims it’s dominance over the local industry and serves as the iconic attraction. Its mock-Swiss facades accidentally evoke the region’s pioneer mining and logging industries, and I actually assumed it to built in an old industrial works located next to the abandoned Kettle Valley Railway line. The original builders were inspired by the Swiss winemaking industry, hence the design, and included a gourmet restaurant, wine shop, and facility tours which set a precent for the local industry and firmly entrenched wine tourism on the Naramata Bench. By removing an apricot orchard to plant their vineyard and construct their facility, they also became a visible leader in that practice.
The winds of change for the moment seem gentle, yet I can feel them reaching deeper within.